Raiders or Traders?

A replica Viking vessel sailing the North Sea has helped archaeologists figure out what the stalwart Norsemen were really up to

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough (Werner Karrasch / The Viking Ship Museum, Denmark)
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Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from its original form and updated to include new information for Smithsonian’s Mysteries of the Ancient World bookazine published in Fall 2009.

From his bench toward the stern of the Sea Stallion from Glendalough, Erik Nielsen could see his crewmates’ stricken faces peering out of bright-red survival suits. A few feet behind him, the leather straps holding the ship’s rudder to its side had snapped. The 98-foot vessel, a nearly $2.5 million replica of a thousand-year-old Viking ship, was rolling helplessly atop waves 15 feet high.

With the wind gusting past 50 miles an hour and the Irish Sea just inches from the gunwales, “I thought we’d be in the drink for sure,” says Nielsen, now 63, a retired Toronto geologist.

It was August 6, 2007, and the Sea Stallion’s crew of 63 had been underway for five weeks, sailing from Roskilde, Denmark, to Dublin, Ireland, on a voyage that would culminate 35 years’ research—“the best living-archaeology experiment ever conducted anywhere,” Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland, calls it.

As Nielsen and some of his crewmates struggled to keep the Sea Stallion upright, four others went to work at the stern. Kneeling on the ship’s heaving, rain-slicked deck, they hauled the 11-foot rudder out of the water, replaced the broken leather straps with jury-rigged nylon ones and reattached the new assembly.

Reducing the sail to a minimum, the crew proceeded at nine knots. As the ship plowed from wave to wave, a full third of the Sea Stallion’s hull was often out of the water. Ahead lay the Isle of Man, 15 hours away.

Two weeks later, its crew exhausted, the Sea Stallion limped into the port of Dublin for a nine-month refurbishment in dry dock at the National Museum of Ireland. In July 2008, it sailed, relatively uneventfully, back to Denmark. Ever since, researchers have been poring over reams of data from both voyages, gathered from electronic sensors on the ship, to learn more about the Vikings’ sailing prowess. Their findings will follow a host of recent discoveries by historians, archaeologists and even biologists that have led to a new understanding of the Vikings as a people who were as adept at trading as they were at raiding.

Norsemen have been seen as intrepid seafarers and fierce warriors—a sort of Hell’s Angels of the early Middle Ages—since A.D. 793, when they raided the rich island monastery at Lindisfarne off the northeastern coast of England. “The ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne,” according to the annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 845, the Viking raider and extortionist extraordinary Ragnar Lothbrok slipped up the Seine with 120 ships—an estimated 5,000 men—to Paris, where King Charles the Bald paid him 7,000 pounds of gold and silver to leave in peace. (A contemporary wrote that “never had [Ragnar] seen, he said, lands so fertile and so rich, nor ever a people so cowardly.”)

Viking raiders traveled thousands of miles to the east and south: across the Baltic, onto the rivers of modern-day Russia and across the Black Sea to menace Constantinople in 941. “Nobody imagines they were there to capture the city,” says Cambridge University historian Simon Franklin. “It was more terroristic—all about instilling fear and extracting concessions for trade.”

At the same time, the new research suggests that the Vikings pouring out of Denmark, Sweden and Norway 1,200 years ago had more than raiding on their minds. Buying and selling goods from places as distant as China and Afghanistan, they also wove a network of trade and exploration from Russia to Turkey to Canada. “They were people without boundaries,” says Wladyslaw Duczko, an archaeologist at the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in Pultusk, Poland. “I think that’s why Vikings are so popular in America.”

About Andrew Curry
Andrew Curry

Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about science and history for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and Wired. He is a contributing editor at Archaeology and has visited archaeological excavations on five continents. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Porto)

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